By Tom Henry
The news about Great Lakes algae just keeps getting worse.
Data at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center in Oregon, Ohio, shows twice as much potentially deadly microcystis in western Lake Erie as there was this time last year. That’s significant because 2010 recorded the most such algae since a new reporting method began in 2002.
A quick primer before we continue:
- Western Lake Erie is the harbinger of many things that come in the Great Lakes basin, being the warmest, shallowest, most biologically productive and most ecologically fickle part of the region. When it comes to algae, invasive species, and other issues, scientists have known for a long time to look there — and to some degree, Michigan’s Saginaw Bay — first for clues of what to expect elsewhere. Lake Erie’s western basin also has the most highly developed shoreline and the densest concentration of people, meaning there’s a lot to learn from the human footprint there — especially when it comes to the nutrients that feed algae, the No. 1 being phosphorus from farm fertilizers and sewage overflows.
- Microcystis is the most prevalent form of toxic algae, often referred to as harmful algal blooms. It has the same toxin, microcystin, that killed 75 people inside a Brazilian hospital in the mid 1990s, prompting a team of experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate. Although microcystis-related problems are rare in the Great Lakes region, accidental ingestion of it — even through inhalation or skin contact — can, at a minimum, leave you feeling light-headed, dizzy, and sick. I know. I experienced that while collecting samples for my employer, The (Toledo) Blade, a year ago this month. Dogs that lap up microcystis-infested water along a shoreline can die from it. Humans can too if they get enough in their system, although they are more likely to experience nausea, vomiting, and severe stomach cramps.
Bottom line: It’s poisonous. It’s not to be messed with.
Yet even though microcystis was virtually non-existent in the Great Lakes region for more than 20 years, including the warm, shallow, and nutrient-rich western Lake Erie, it reared its ugly head and made a comeback in 1995. It has reappeared almost annually, despite being the focus of an all-hands-on-deck research blitz among a team of scientists from both the United States and Canada years ago, the subject of congressional hearings and a talking point for innumerable public outreach efforts aimed at curbing runoff and sewage overflows.
And the situation just keeps getting worse.
Algae arriving earlier, staying later
Scientists now report finding microcystis arriving earlier, staying later, and originating in the region’s largest tributary, the Maumee River, as far west as Defiance and in another biggie, Ohio’s Sandusky River, as far south as Tiffin. Both of those cities are a good hour’s drive or so from the shoreline.
Last summer, microcystis went past the Lake Erie islands and penetrated the lake’s central basin near Cleveland for the first time in decades, possibly ever.
Tom Bridgeman, who leads the University of Toledo’s algae research, said it appears inevitable that “this year’s microcystis ‘crop’ is going to be the biggest since we started our monitoring program in 2002.”
A relatively mild August has done little to slow down the big, green menace.
Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, said the spring’s excessive phosphorus runoff and unusually hot July “overwhelmed everything.”
Reutter also believes the situation could get worse as the Earth’s surface temperatures continue to warm and the effects of global climate change become more acute on the Great Lakes region. He has said that could explain why that species of algae is arriving earlier, staying later, and generally becoming more hardy and adaptive to the region.
Of course, the massive runoff problem remains.
Ohio’s six state agency directors learned on June 15 that nearly a third of all Ohio farmland is believed to contain too much phosphorus, which — when pushed off land by thunderstorms — explains a lot of the runoff problem.
The report, made public at the quarterly Ohio Lake Erie Commission, was based on data from a million soil samples across the state that were analyzed by two Ohio State researchers.
Meanwhile, researchers at Heidelberg University’s nationally recognized water-quality laboratory documented the highest runoff volumes in at least 36 years this spring along the Maumee and the Sandusky. The lab has been compiling such data since 1975.
The problems with algae go way beyond unsightly aesthetics, odors and the inconvenience of keeping pets away from the shoreline for a few weeks each summer.
Though some forms of algae play an important role in the aquatic food chain that fish rely upon, the mass proliferation of species such as microcystis drives down property values and drives away would-be tourists. It makes it more expensive for small businessmen, such as charter boat captains, to provide a pleasant fishing experience to their upscale clientele, who also support bait shops, motels, and restaurants with their visits.
Tourism accounts for $38 billion of economic impact in Ohio, with $10 billion of that in counties along Lake Erie, according to figures released at the June meeting to the Ohio Department of Development.
The Buckeye State’s tourism industry also accounts for about one of every 10 jobs along the Ohio coast, putting 114,500 people to work while generating millions of dollars in tax revenue,
And cities such as Toledo spend thousands of dollars operating carbon-activated filters and treating raw water with chemicals to neutralize the threat and keep it out of tap water.
The summer outbreak usually peaks in early September, meaning that the signs in place now are only the beginning of what could be one of the worst in modern times.
A huge bloom of potentially toxic microcystis algae has been visible from space since at least July 22. European Space Agency satellite photos given to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor show how it formed in the Monroe area, grew, and has fanned out to the Lake Erie islands.
George Leshkevich, manager of the NOAA lab’s CoastWatch program, which compiles such information for the public, agreed the bloom is especially large for this time of the year.
A Lake Erie Harmful Algal Bloom Bulletin issued by NOAA on July 28 said the microcystis concentration has been greater than 1,000 micrograms per liter – 500 times greater than the World Health Organization’s standard of 20 micrograms per liter for recreational water.
The values are often expressed in parts per billion. Micrograms per liter and parts per billion convert to identical concentration measurements.
The stuff “is pretty bad for water intakes, even if it’s just taste and odor problems in the best-case scenario,” Leshkevich said.
Said David Leffler, Toledo commissioner of operations for the city’s water-treatment and sewage plants: “Everything that is good for an algae bloom is happening.”